Mexican gray wolf population increasing in the wild
Animals still endangered, but federal protection may end
Prescott residents will likely not catch a glimpse of the Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), said Noel Fletcher, wildlife biologist for the Prescott National Forest.
“The Prescott National Forest might be within the expanded recovery zone for them, but we’ve had no known documented Mexican gray wolf. I don’t expect them to be coming this far west,” Fletcher said.
Still, there is some interest in the Mexican Gray Wolf reintroduction program, especially since David Bernhardt, acting Secretary of the Interior, announced in March the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) would seek to end federal protection for gray wolves, and give management to states and tribes to make their own rules on hunting the animals.
Reintroducing wolves into the wild has proved successful for the endangered animal, bringing it back from the brink of extinction. Wolves in Arizona and New Mexico have not reached the recommended number, however, for removal from the ESA endangered classification.
There is cause for optimism, states the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) news release of April 8. The total number of wolves in the wild across Arizona and New Mexico as of January now numbers 131, up 12% from
Wolves survive on elk, deer and domestic livestock, the latter leading to controversy over depredation (killing of livestock) issues.
Contact the Mexican Wolf Program to report wolf sightings or suspected livestock depredations at 1-888-459-9653 toll-free or 928-339-4329.
To report incidents of take or harassment of wolves, call the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s 24-hour dispatch Operation Game Thief at 1-800-352-0700.
117 this past year.
According to the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, to be downlisted the population must be equal or greater than 320 wolves averaged over a four-year period, or when each of the two populations in the program number 150 averaged over a 4-year period.
Kevin Kinsell, AZGFD and Arizona Livestock Loss Board member, said he doesn’t foresee removal of the wolf from the ESA list anytime soon.
“We have a long ways to go to make sure they’re sustainable out there,” Kinsell said. “I don’t know that we will see that in our lifetime.”
Joe Trudeau, Southwest Advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, agrees.
“Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico are nowhere near recovered, especially as they’re being restricted from roaming across their full native range, which goes all the way up to the Grand Canyon,” he said.
He cites several polls indicating Arizona and New Mexico voters support the belief that wolves are a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage.
Eradication programs in the 1800s nearly wiped out the wolf population in the United States. The animals have been federally protected since 1976, when FWS began its efforts to conserve the species, the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America. In 1998, the agency released 11 captive-reared wolves into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area shared by Arizona and New Mexico. The animals had been missing in this location for more than 30 years.
A captive breeding program between Mexico and the U.S. with seven founder wolves works to maintain a minimum of two healthy, genetically diverse populations across geographically diverse areas of the traditional range.
CONFLICTS WITH RANCHERS
According to Defenders of Wildlife, an organization dedicated to protect and restore imperiled wildlife, the most common threats to wolves are conflict with humans, loss of habitat, and decreasing protections. It is the conflict with humans that causes ranchers the most concern.
Keeping their cattle safe is an effort in which many agencies are involved. The Interagency Field Team with AZGFD often provides a food cache near dens to reduce the potential for wolves killing cattle.
If ranchers suspect wolves of killing his livestock, they have recourse through the Arizona Livestock Loss Board. Since depredation payments began in May 2017, the board has paid ranchers $67,950, Kinsell reports.
Since April, 48 claims have been submitted. Four are outstanding, two needing more information, one killed animal was a dog, and the fourth was an injury.
“The board does not have a policy to reimburse on animals other than cattle,” he said.
Payment has five categories with increasing value based on age of the animal. An inspection by an FWS team determines by measuring the bite marks whether the death was by wolves.
Northern Arizona rancher Steve Pierce, who also serves as Arizona Farm and Ranch Group president, said he has not had any issues with wolves on his ranch, nor is he aware of any in this area. “Primarily, they are in the eastern part of the state, not this far north or west.”
Kinsell said the livestock loss board is looking at avoidance measures that support the ranchers. These include hiring a range rider to provide intervention between wolves and cattle, a project to change the calving periods from spring to fall, and finding certain breeds of dogs to act as a threat to wolves so they will “go other places for their dinner.”
When collared wolves move in the direction of a ranch, the agency forewarns the rancher, Kinsell said, adding that ranchers cannot “take out” wolves because of a threat to cattle.
Killing a Mexican gray wolf is a violation of the ESA and can result in criminal penalties up to $50,000, and/or up to one year in jail, and/or a civil penalty up to $25,000.
Several agencies and non-governmental organizations offer rewards for information leading to the conviction of individual(s) responsible for the shooting deaths of Mexican wolves. FWS offers a reward up to $10,000. Other organizations and private individuals have pledged an additional $46,000.
In November, Jason Kunkel pleaded guilty for killing a wild-born, female Mexican wolf in December 2017, FWS reports. He received five years of unsupervised probation, cannot engage in any hunting activities, is banned from Arizona’s national forests except for traveling through those areas, restitution of $7,500, and forfeiture of his Remington rifle with scope.
Trapping is banned on public lands in Arizona and Colorado, but not in New Mexico, although environmental groups are pushing for the legislation to ban the traps.